DUBAI: Football power plays are no longer just confined to the field. The battle has been taken to social media.
Clubs in the Arabic-speaking world have increasingly embraced the established platforms of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
With TikTok, however, there has been a reluctance.
This could change soon as the relatively new digital kid on the block continues to flex its muscles in the football sphere.
Four months ahead of the rescheduled UEFA Euro 2020, the Chinese-owned social media giant TikTok has been announced as an official sponsor for the summer championship, the first time a digital entertainment platform has sponsored a major football tournament.
Having surpassed 2 billion downloads and 600 million monthly active users worldwide, TikTok’s rise over the past couple of years has been nothing short of meteoric. The platform registered a 10-fold growth since 2018 and football has been at the heart of that growth. All but two of the 20 English Premier League clubs run verified official accounts on TikTok with Liverpool FC leading the race with more than 7 million followers. It is a similar story in the Netherlands where every single top-flight club has an official TikTok account.
In the Middle East, opinions remain divided on the short-form video app. But that has not stopped its impressive growth in the region, prompting many Arab football clubs to take a shot and sign up for the TikTok wave, despite initial difficulties.
“Please no”, “Are you sure about this?” and “Just why?”. These may sound like frustrated fans’ reactions to their football club announcing an underwhelming new signing or manager. Rather, those are just a few disapproving reactions seen by Arab News after a regional club announced it had joined social media platform TikTok at the start of 2020.
A quick survey on other more established social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter revealed a widespread negative perception of the content and influence of TikTok in the Middle East, a view that is particularly prevalent among the older generations and many millennials.
But in a fast-moving digital world, it is the younger generations that matter the most for brands joining the platform, where people below the age of 24 make up nearly half its user base. Football clubs were no different, while the prospect of tapping into the TikTok-obsessed Generation Z fans was very attractive.
Egypt’s Al-Ahly became the first Arab club to exceed 1 million followers, with their count standing at 1.3 million at the time of writing. Saudi powerhouse Al-Hilal come in second place, but their TikTok base of 350,000 is a far cry from their stellar Twitter following. Al-Hilal has an impressive 9.2 million Twitter followers, which places them firmly among the globe’s top 10 most followed football clubs on that platform — ahead of Juventus, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Of the dozen or so TikTok pioneers in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the way with four clubs each. Egypt follows with two while one Moroccan and one Qatari club round off the list. Meanwhile, the UAE Pro League remains the only competition in the region with an official TikTok account, gathering 83,000 followers.
One particular success story comes from the UAE where Abu Dhabi-based Al-Jazira launched their official TikTok account in March 2020. By September, they had gained 100,000 followers, making TikTok their most popular social media channel and placing them third among Arab clubs on the platform.
So successful was the club’s reach on TikTok that by October 2020, they had signed a partnership agreement with the company that saw them don the TikTok logo on the shorts of their limited-edition kit worn at the start of the 2020-21 season.
“We continue to look for innovative ways to engage with our supporters and our presence on TikTok is helping us to connect with young fans and followers in ways we haven’t seen before,” said Ali Youssif Al Hammadi, the club’s CEO.
“The impact has been immediate. To partner with one of the world’s biggest social media applications shows our intent. We are a club on the move, and this is another positive and exciting step in our development.”
And while the early adopters have started reaping the dividends, just joining the platform is not in itself a magical recipe to attract more fans, as many clubs in the region discovered. Three of the four UAE clubs on TikTok combine for a meager 5,000 followers, leaving Al-Jazira to run away with the lion’s share of the followers.
“TikTok offers clubs the opportunity to expand their brand outside their home geographic territory,” a TikTok spokesman told Arab News. “The range of challenges, hashtags and music-themed content available on the platform allows clubs to reach and engage with a new fan base outside the traditional football supporters.”